The People Freaking Out About “Overturning Tradition” in Calling for the Abolition of the Death Penalty

The People Freaking Out About “Overturning Tradition” in Calling for the Abolition of the Death Penalty November 6, 2019

…seem to me to be utterly oblivious to the Church’s development of doctrine with respect to slavery. Reader Raphael Winters chronicles this development:

The Catholic Church from the time of the Apostles tolerated the practice of slavery. Was there critique? Yes. Was there regulation? Yes. Was kidnapping eventually outlawed? Yes. The classical liberal (conservative) will attempt to make the case that the catholic church universally condemned slavery since the beginning, and seize upon a few critiques or summaries in order to consolidate their current anti-papal position. The honest historian will see a varying degree of critique, regulation, and toleration throughout the centuries showing ‘what is allowed’ has in fact changed repeatedly. One of the most thorough documentation of this is the Letters of John England to the Honorable Forsyth.

Here are some common statements, rebuttals, and counter-rebuttals:

Statement: The church tolerated slavery since the time of the apostles

Rebuttal: The church critiqued slavery many times! It’s been against chattel slavery since the early church!

Counter-Rebuttal: The church gave a critiqued restriction or a toleration but never a general firm repudiation until Vatican II.


Statement: The church can regulate the morality of the practice of an act regardless of its inherent nature

Rebuttal: The church cannot change the inherent moral nature of an act

Counter-Rebuttal: Church authority most certainly regulates the moral practice of an act regardless of its inherent nature. And the church (not reason) is the surest messenger of knowing what the moral practice of an act should be, regardless of its inherent nature which exists invisibly in a distant unearthly plane of existence.

Most of the relevant scholarly articles are attached as google drive links to this e-mail. What do they refer to?

Up until 1839, the Catholic Church tolerated (but regulated) chattel slavery. Kidnapping+enslavement was prohibited, as was the enslavement of the first peoples of North America and surrounding islands. Therefore some priests and even bishops owned slaves. In 1839 the Pope denounced the buying and selling of slaves.

Most of the American Bishops 1840 onward would reject this and claim he was only referring to the Transatlantic Slave Trade which involved the kidnapping then the buying and selling of slaves. The primary Bishop rejecting this was Bishop John England of Charleston, SC but there are quotes on the records from a few other bishops and journalists against ‘abolitionism’ as well. They outweigh the solitary bishop and handful of intellectuals of the time against slavery.

Therefore we have a conservative ‘schism’ as it were (and documented in the following articles) where the conservative american catholics ‘held to [1838 and prior] tradition and custom’ against the [liberal] Pope.

Regardless, when the civil war ended in 1865- it was only then that the Bishops released their slaves. Most theologians would stick to the pre-1839 ‘traditionally tolerated but regulated’ idea until Vatican II when it was unilaterally denounced as a practice especially when used against women or children.

What would have been the consequence if American Catholics had prioritized what the Pope said in 1839? Well, at the time American Catholics were more concerned with their own parochial concerns (just like most catholics in most historic periods) such as the vice of alcoholism, the danger of mixed catholic and non catholic marriages, and the corrupting influence of public schools against vocations and catholic morality. So their ‘list of concerns’ was already quite full. The Pope then- as well as now- seemed to be talking about something which was not a historic concern, was not a local concern, therefore they ignored it and imagined nothing bad could happen.

John England in his 1840 letters to Secretary of State Forsyth mentioned that if the Pope was listened to- it would inevitably lead to a peaceful abolition of slavery where the government compensated slave holders, and in turn set the slaves free- just as it happened in England. So if Catholics had listened to the Pope in 1840 when his encyclical was published in English- we might have avoided the civil war.

However, as I said previously, the parochial and local concerns always take priority over the papal priority in most historic situations. The consequence is the ignored papal priority (which is usually a farsighted moral strategy) leads to long term negative social consequences even if on a personal level there is much benefit temporarily (like most sin).

This leads us necessarily to a need to categorize papal and church statements- from mandate to absolute prohibition. It is because otherwise the dedicated researcher can dig through the history of the church, find one critique of slavery in ancient times, then claim (falsely) the church had always prohibited it (just like modern conceits) therefore the historican is wrong.

No, the restrictions or loosening of restrictions do vary historically. They can be categorized with a simple number line of your own devising or thus:

+5 Absolute Mandate “Since Always” (Absolutely Necessary)
+4 Firm Directive “Since Historic” (Necessary for all persons)
+3 General Injunction (Almost Certainly helpful for all)
+2 Variable Prescription (Helpful for most Persons)
+1 Commented Sanction (Regulated practice, mostly tolerated)
+0 Toleration (Regulated but not Inherently Sinful or Virtuous)
-1 Critiqued Restriction (Fault, occasionally venial, regulated but tolerated)
-2 Variable Proscription (Usually venial sin, worsened by proximity, reason, graveness)
-3 General Admonition (Usually mortal, reduced by proximity, reason, graveness)
-4 Firm Repudiation “Since Historic” (Almost certainly mortal)
-5 Absolute Prohibition “Since Always” (Always Mortal)

So when we find a critique of slavery before 1839 we would place it as a “-1” on the scale of regulation. After 1839 we would place the buying and selling of slaves as a ‘-3’ whereas the majority of american catholics would hold it was only a “-1” or “0” until the end of the civil war. Since Vatican II any practice of slavery would be a “-4” and this repudiation has been widely accepted in the United States.

The idea of differentiating teachings of the church is again, absolutely necessary if we are to understand the thought processes of historic catholics against the Pope and how arguing about the morality of an act can consume so many decades of controversy.

A ‘critiqued restriction’ – such as on the buying and selling of chattel slaves before 1838- or on capital punishment before 2018- may or may not change the ‘inherent nature’ (a loophole beloved by classical liberals) but it still exists thanks to the authority of the papacy which can morally bind a catholic to not commit an act under the virtue of obedience by the god-given authority of the papacy itself. That is not mere theological speculation, it is Canon Law.

Can. 749 §1 In virtue of his office the Supreme Pontiff is infallible in his teaching when, as chief Shepherd and Teacher of all Christ’s faithful, with the duty of strengthening his brethren in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act a doctrine to be held concerning faith or morals.

Can. 751 Heresy is the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith. Apostasy is the total repudiation of the christian faith. Schism is the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

Can. 752 While the assent of faith is not required, a religious submission of intellect and will is to be given to any doctrine which either the Supreme Pontiff or the College of Bishops, exercising their authentic magisterium, declare upon a matter of faith or morals, even though they do not intend to proclaim that doctrine by definitive act. Christ’s faithful are therefore to ensure that they avoid whatever does not accord with that doctrine.

Why is this important? Because critics- acting in the ‘classically liberal’ tradition will put human reason to judge what is ‘scripture and tradition’ against the Pope. Assuming we are not going by events such as ‘acclamation’ or ‘populism’ we would then be assuming that the ‘majority of Scripture Professors and majority of Patristic Professors’ can somehow outweigh papal authority. Does it? Does acclamation of points of scripture or tradition, or majority opinions of scripture professors or patristic professors outweigh the Pope? Does quoting from the early church fathers or scripture defeat papal judgment? Nay. Why? Well let’s look at canon law (skipping over Vatican I for now)

Can. 331 The office uniquely committed by the Lord to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, abides in the Bishop of the Church of Rome. He is the head of the College of Bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the Pastor of the universal Church here on earth. Consequently, by virtue of his office, he has supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, and he can always freely exercise this power.

Can. 332 §1 The Roman Pontiff acquires full and supreme power in the Church when, together with episcopal consecration, he has been lawfully elected and has accepted the election. Accordingly, if he already has the episcopal character, he receives this power from the moment he accepts election to the supreme pontificate. If he does not have the episcopal character, he is immediately to be ordained Bishop.

§2 Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.

Can. 333 §1 By virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff not only has power over the universal Church, but also has pre-eminent ordinary power over all particular Churches and their groupings. This reinforces and defends the proper, ordinary and immediate power which the Bishops have in the particular Churches entrusted to their care.

§2 The Roman Pontiff, in fulfilling his office as supreme Pastor of the Church, is always joined in full communion with the other Bishops, and indeed with the whole Church. He has the right, however, to determine, according to the needs of the Church, whether this office is to be exercised in a personal or in a collegial manner.

§3 There is neither appeal nor recourse against a judgement or a decree of the Roman Pontiff.

So Canon 333 §3 (which is very easy to remember) states there is no appeal against a decree of the Roman Pontiff- and classical liberals (conservatives) however are using reason to appeal to their personal interpretation (or group interpretation) of doctrine or discipline against him. Therefore, they deny the teaching of the church which says ‘there is no appeal’.

But wait, they will appeal, they will claim that ‘if the Pope can change discipline, he can change what is inherently immoral into a mandate! He could say gay marriage is now permissable!’ No, unlike President Trump the Pope is not “fine” with gay marriage (in fact, he calls it of the devil). And the Pope isn’t going to the U.N. and saying he will promote LGBT rights (unlike Trump).

Trump is a classical liberal (classical economics mixed with mercantilist ideas on tariffs and borders) mixed with some modern liberalism (LGBT, divorce, abortion critiqued but tolerated).

No, while the Pope can change discipline (what is regulated and how) he doesn’t change dogma. The Pope has never said “capital punishment MUST be practiced for these following crimes for these following ways forever and all time” no, it has been more like, “The freedom of the authority of the state to allow for such and such a punishment will be tolerated but abuses will be critiqued.” i.e. a discipline somewhere between -1 and +3 or so on the above number line- but never a “+5 dogma or adamantium doctrine.”

If it were such a thing, then there would be papal teachings on the necessity of execution for certain crimes exactly in line with the allowance for personal vengeance in the old testament which are the oldest ‘teachings from God’ that we have. A ‘traditionalist’ reading of capital punishment in its narrowest, most longest lasting ‘natural law’ or ‘oldest historic usage’ would then by necessity be forced to admit say, the allowance of parents to conduct personal vengeance against corporations whose pollutions have poisoned or killed their children- but  no, they do not allow for that. For classical liberals (conservatives) hold to the consensus  slowly built from the early church against ‘natural law capital punishment’ as a freedom of the state which is tolerated and regulated but not morally mandated. Rather then a ‘dogma’ it is in fact a ‘discipline’ which can and does change based on the decision of the papacy on the freedoms of the state depending on the historic period. So we have the 3 D’s:

Dogma: Unchanging. There is no dogmatic list of ‘what is dogma and what isn’t’ to the chagrin of conservatives who want to toss out catholic teachings on catholic social teaching and capital punishment ‘because it’s not ex cathedra’. The two Marian dogmas and the creed are the best dogmas we have- everything else is technically doctrine.

Doctrine: Doctrine can develop, and developments can restrict a freedom which was once tolerated. From the most recent historical reaction (“The schism of 1840-1865”) we see development of doctrine which restricts a prior economic freedom or state freedom will often be hotly contested by catholics who see they have ‘much to lose’ socially if they take a stance against a popular act.

Discipline: Wildly variable, discipline will change from century to century. We once did not allow death bed communion for public sinners who lived a lifetime of scandal, now we do. This tends to upset people who wanted a ‘set list’ of what was allowed and not allowed and feel upset when discipline of an action becomes greater It almost never becomes lesser, such as when the Pope allowed for Ember Days to be removed from Lent.

Modern Liberals tend to interpret the change in discipline as allowing for a change in dogma. So whereas the morality of engaging in “the love which dares not speak its name” has been morally prohibited since the Old Testament and New Testament (-5) they forsee it coming from a -5 to +1 and anticipate the ‘future doctrinal developments of the church’ in doing so.

Regardless, moral acts which are an “absolute prohibition” since the beginning are quite different  from a “critiqued restriction” or a “commented sanction.” It is a fine point of doctrinal development which is not appreciated by most people involved in the subject as modern liberals wish to fit in with the latest fads of sin, and classical liberals want to begrudgingly accept it after a few decades of resistance.

If you have read all of this way then you should be ready to deal with the example of Gregory XVI, the variable disciplines on slavery (read the letters of John England to Forsyth), the ‘schism’ of 1840-1865, and you should be ready to deal with questions of ‘if it is inherently good, the church cannot prohibit it’, ‘the inherent nature of the act is all that is important, not the authority of the pope’, and the usual questions and critiques of classical liberals against the authority of the papacy on the morality of the death penalty or allowing spouses to be forgiven in the “private forum” of confession just like any other sinner in his absolutely necessary attempt to build a “pro-family” coalition of church going catholics against all forces arrayed against the church going catholic and christian family and against its unique privilege of educating and raising the next generation.

Such an alliance is required for historically we see from papal and church history, not a “british/scottish style railing loudly and publicly against evil” is not necessarily the most chosen papal strategy but rather an “alliance of mutual co-belligerants for a cause” seeing as “the papacy, by itself, and without a sufficiently strong catholic state to support it, must rely on allies as it can find them” in order to “accomplish actions, and not mere words.” Such a strategy was used anywhere historically from the crusades to the Papacy becoming reconcilatory to the Orthodox and other Religions as a sort of vague alliance against communism for most of the 20th century- repudiated by conservatives especially from the “british/scottish loud railing tradition” which places an emphasis on bold, public proclamations rather than decisive strategic moral actions on high level moral issues.

You now understand most of the major critiques of the papacy and its actions, and should be able to answer some objections as to why the pope seems to put emphasis on deeds not words, why he eschews the british/scottish preaching tradition, and why he seems ‘so out of touch’ i.e. putting strategic moral issues ahead and above parochial and local issues which seem much more present and visible.

This e-mail should contain most of the intellectual structure and framework necessary for understanding and responding to critiques of papal authority from the classically liberal side. To wit, the following major errors are present: human reason championed over papal authority, the idea that papal authority can be resisted ‘unless it’s about a proclaimed dogma’, that the authority of the church has ‘usurped’ the rights of state power [which includes capital punishment], and a national church can be established apart from the Pope [most traditionalists would be in favor of this]. Such falsehoods were condemned in 1864.. excerpts…

The Syllabus Of Errors
Pope BI. Pius IX – 1864

3. Human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil; it is law to itself, and suffices, by its natural force, to secure the welfare of men and of nations.

22. The obligation by which Catholic teachers and authors are strictly bound is confined to those things only which are proposed to universal belief as dogmas of faith by the infallible judgment of the Church. — Letter to the Archbishop of Munich, “Tuas libenter,” Dec. 21, 1863.

23. Roman pontiffs and ecumenical councils have wandered outside the limits of their powers, have usurped the rights of princes, and have even erred in defining matters of faith and morals. — Damnatio “Multiplices inter,” June 10, 1851.

37. National churches, withdrawn from the authority of the Roman pontiff and altogether separated, can be established. — Allocution “Multis gravibusque,” Dec. 17, 1860.

You should now be ready to use the power of the 19th century against the current errors and failings to put papal priorities above local concerns. Such failures seemed to be documented in the 19th century and it would be useful to know them for our 21st for the current generation has forgotten the errors of the prior, and imagine” they are representatives of a movement which has been ever faithful up until now, therefore their opinion against the pope should be seen all the greater.”


The papal encyclical in 1839 (published in the united states in 1840) repudiated the idea of buying and selling human beings, and only allowed for it as a punishment for crime. This is the exact same idea which was only embraced by the United States in Amendment XIII after the Civil War. If we had embraced the ideas of the encyclical- the self same ideas in the Amendment XIII- we could have avoided the civil war, although, at the cost of ‘respectability’ in Southern Catholicism and at the most strenuous protest and hatred of Southern Slaveowners “forced” to sell their slaves to the government and subsequently manumitted and set free. The Southern Catholic Church made a deal with the devil to repudiate the Pope, and side with the Southern (protestant, and also Mason) idea of slavery in exchange for religious toleration.


John England stated slave owners seemed to be the most best of all liturgical celebrants- my interpretation they were the most emphasized their reverence, their respect, and their appearance in the liturgy which he took to be a sign of virtue, but which I take to be a social commentary on how those who violate moral customs of the church especially in the economic realm will strive to use a certain strident and disciplined participation in the liturgy to excuse their toleration of “moral ills” condemned by the pope but tolerated by popular practice.


In Mense Maio, Paul VI critiqued the handling of the Vietnam War in 1965 which led to working class catholics to reject him especially as it seemed only liberals and a few ‘liberal bishops’ were in favor of the war. There is a scholarly paper or book somewhere which seemed to mention it. I use via the wifi of my academic institution in order to find scholarly papers. It is one point of how long lived the ‘classically liberal’ (conservative) rejection of papal authority is- it’s not just Francis, it’s also Paul VI, and it’s not just Paul VI- we can trace it back all the way before Vatican II


That would be articles 119-121 of Casta Connubii which seem to call for what a conservative would condemn (using fiscal and not moral language) for support of the physical needs of lower class families- as well as the prior example of the ‘schism’ of 1840-1865 which was quite embarrassing for both classical and modern liberals and only remembered in a few scholarly papers by now.


More on this tomorrow.

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